Communities: Charities and Volunteers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:39 pm on 13th February 2019.

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Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution) 6:39 pm, 13th February 2019

This has been an inspiring debate. The world is a cynical place at the moment, and all the Brexit debates highlight just how divided this House can be, but when we talk about the fabric of our communities and what makes them the places they are, there is a real glow from MPs.

I pay tribute to all Members who have spoken today, and in particular my hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock, who talked about the great work in her constituency to support people with dementia, as well as the human cost of austerity and cuts, with children going hungry. My hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue is a champion for Citizens Advice, and her expertise in that field really adds value to this place.

My hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones, as chair of the APPG on charities and volunteering, lives and breathes the charity sector and goes above and beyond; she shows that every day in this place. My hon. Friend Thelma Walker talked about the real price of austerity, how the cuts feel on the ground and how desperate it is that so many people are turning to food banks as a direct result of austerity and deliberate choices that the Government have made. My hon. Friend Rushanara Ali has been a champion of volunteering for a long time, going up and down the country and building a network of volunteers with real commitment.

My hon. Friend Hugh Gaffney talked about austerity and the direct impact of cuts on charities. It is not just that charities are picking up the pieces after public sector cuts. Charities themselves have faced cuts, and on top of that, when they are contracted by the Government, they are told that they cannot speak out on the issues that affect them and the reason they exist. He made that case passionately. My hon. Friend Faisal Rashid talked about the importance of charities in Warrington and how they are part of the fabric of that community.

The backdrop of this debate cannot be ignored, and it has been mentioned a number of times. The charities that do this fantastic work, that go above and beyond, that we all take inspiration from, that we all visit and that we all thank today are, by and large, picking up the pieces where the Government have decided that they are not responsible, walked away, taken the money and left communities to sink or swim.

Many examples have been given today, including food bank activity; the work that communities are doing to self-organise and respond to crime and antisocial behaviour in their area; people taking on the local library because the council money has been taken away, and to keep it open, they have to self-organise; and community volunteers on estates who are stepping up because they recognise that young people do not have the facilities they used to have to keep them out of trouble and give them a positive focus and hope.

We hear all these stories, and they are inspiring, but this is about transferral of responsibility. I remember a former Prime Minister, who I think is in a shed somewhere writing his memoirs, talking about the big society and this big idea of an emboldened civil society where charities are supported. The truth is that charities have just about kept their head above water. In the way that councils, the police service and the fire service have seen cuts, charities have also seen severe cuts.

In my town, we used to have an area-based grant, which was directed to areas of high deprivation, to support the community infrastructure that was so important. When the coalition Government came into power in 2010, they cancelled that with less than a year’s notice. The staff of community groups and charities that were set up to provide that support were just thrown on the scrapheap, as though the work they did in the community did not matter.

Given that it is customary for MPs to mention charities in their area, I want to pay tribute to the fantastic work of a range of charities in mine. There is a danger, when we do this, that we please a handful and really annoy a long list of people who we do not have time to mention. I want to mention Dr Kershaw’s hospice. Whichever community someone comes from in Oldham, they will be connected to that hospice at a time when they are at their most desperate, feeling pain that they never thought they would have to go through and not being sure how to cope when it hits. The hospice has given people who are nearing the end of their life the support, courage and confidence to get through that very painful time, and it is genuinely part of the community.

Like many places, however, we have community groups that, if we are honest, we would wish did not exist. I wish that Oldham did not need a food bank, and I wish it was not a thriving food bank, but it is. I wish that the Andy’s Man Club did not have to support people who feel suicidal, but it does. There are lots of other examples.

I could not help but notice that quite a big chunk of money was announced earlier, and we had a taste of some of the areas that are likely to receive some of the funding. Given the Members who have contributed here today and the work they have highlighted in their communities, I just hope that the funding, when the list is finally published, is fairly distributed by geography. I hope that it absolutely targets areas of need and deprivation, takes into account that some areas have been hit harder by public service reductions than others and really supports places where there is genuine working together across institutions.

This is not about good Government or bad Government, with charities over here and the community over there. When this works well, in the way we have heard about today, it is because everyone comes together. When a council works well, it is the community; when a charity works well, it is the community; and when a next-door neighbour checks up on an elderly relative—collects the post and does all the things we have talked about—that is the community. The fabric of our community is under great strain at the moment, and it really requires us to make sure that we begin to reinvest in it.

The Prime Minister made a promise that austerity was over, recognising that the pain had been very deep, knowing that it was a big factor in the referendum result and wanting to address that. Unfortunately, she was undermined by her Chancellor who had the opportunity in the autumn statement genuinely to end austerity and decided, “Well, to hell with it. Let’s just carry on.” They must have been quite enjoying the journey that they were taking. I would say that most people in this Chamber, if they are honest, are looking at their own local authorities, regardless of political complexion and geography—whether rural or urban, north or south—and wondering how on earth that council will be able to survive over the next couple of years.

Why is council funding so important? Because the council, which is democratically elected and of the community—people themselves elect who they want to be their voice in their town or city—comes together and brings people together, and it is often the first port of call. We cannot have thriving civil society if we have underfunded and starved local government; we cannot have thriving local government if we have not got thriving civil society; and none of that works if we have not got decent people. Whatever our view today, we should all be very proud of the country we live in. We are a mixed, diverse, vibrant country full of wonderful people who, every day, do amazing things.